French Chamber Music

Debussy
Sonata in D minor for cello and piano
Ravel
Trio in A minor for piano, violin and cello
Franck
Piano Quintet in F minor

Angela Hewitt (piano), Renaud Capuçon & Jack Liebeck (violins), Antoine Tamestit (viola) & Gautier Capuçon (cello)


Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey

Reviewed: 10 April, 2006
Venue: Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

This programme proved a veritable feast for lovers of French music (Belgian in the case of Franck!). None of these three works are everyday occurrences, and the Franck, in particular, now exists at the outer edge of the repertory.

The juxtaposition of these Debussy and Ravel pieces was instructive. Both were written under the shadow of the First World War, Debussy’s in the summer of 1915 and Ravel’s in 1914 whilst he was waiting to be called up for military service. Debussy described his sonata as the first of six by “Claude Debussy, French musician” and it was published with a mock 18th-century title page. The emotional core of Ravel’s trio is a modified version of the baroque passacaglia. However, both works are Janus-like; whilst they glance backward to a Golden Age, at the same time they are remarkably forward-looking in their harmonic language and compositional technique.

Gautier Capuçon, Renaud’s younger brother and a pupil of Heinrich Schiff, produced a tone of arresting depth and beauty. He played the ‘Prologue’ with fluid sensibility and complete freedom and ‘Sérénade’, music at once fantastic and light, was given with real panache. The finale was taken absolutely headlong, both Capuçon and Hewitt revelling in its rhetoric. Debussy planned to give the sonata the title ‘Pierrot angry with the moon’ – and here it sounded appropriately combustible.

Renaud Capuçon, who plays the Guarneri which once belonged to Isaac Stern and who produces a consistently beautiful sound, joined for the Ravel. Anyone thinking Ravel’s music emotionally restrained, crafted like a Swiss watchmaker, needed to hear this rendering with its passionate climaxes and glittering scherzo (which Ravel called ‘Pantoum’, a verse form of Malay origin). Hewitt was well up to Ravel’s extreme pianistic demands – the Fazioli piano, with its slightly dry, crisp sound, sounding just right – and totally responsive to her two colleagues.

Best of all though was César Franck’s Piano Quintet, a work whose sensuality aroused strong passions when it was premiered in 1880. Franck’s wife absolutely hated it, possibly because its inspiration may have been Augusta Holmès, a woman of unusual beauty, and a poetess, singer and musician – and one of Franck’s pupils! Another of Franck’s pupils, composer and organist Charles Tournemire, once dubbed the work “the king of piano quintets”, and it is dedicated to Saint-Saëns. He also took an instant dislike to it, walking off the platform after having played the piano part at the premiere and very publicly leaving the score on the piano. Even Liszt professed to be shocked by its sensuality!

The numerically increasing ensemble, now joined by Jack Liebeck and Antoine Tamestit, gave a rendition of such fervour and tensile energy that one hopes there will be a recording. Hewitt once again was fully up to the extreme demands, and especially effective was the group’s willingness to reduce to a real pianissimo after some of the more ecstatic outbursts; the pauses, timed to a tee, had unusual potency. The finale’s feverish restlessness elicited a charge of pure adrenaline.



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